After ‘The Sandbaggers’ hasty conclusion, the likeable and capable Ray Lonnen starred in the critically acclaimed and hugely downbeat ‘Harry’s Game’, a programme about 'The Troubles' (a euphemism which seems a bit like calling World War One 'the big tiff') originally broadcast in 1982.
The programme begins with the ruthless assassination of a British cabinet minister by an IRA hitman (played by Derek Thompson, in-between ‘The Long Good Friday’ and his never ending stint in ‘Casualty’). The government can’t let this very public act stand, of course, so they send army officer and undercover specialist Harry Brown (Lonnen) to Belfast to track down Thompson - not to arrest him, not to bring him to justice - but to kill him, publicly, so everyone knows that the powers that be pay their debts.
Brown was born in Northern Ireland, so it’s a homecoming of sorts for him and he can (almost) do the accent. He is also recovering from a complete nervous breakdown and doesn’t seem to care whether he lives or dies. He does, however, understand the rules of ‘the game’: in war, an eye for an eye is everything, no matter how futile it might be.
Thompson’s IRA man is a much more reluctant player. He does what he is told, even though he hates it, and retains a core of unpredictable humanity (he loves his family; he can be kind; he refuses to kill a child). Brown is more detached, a hollow man who does what he has been trained to do because it is the only thing he really understands. He has a wife, a family, but he doesn’t give them a second thought, refusing to withdraw time and time again in order to see out the game. For what it’s worth, the end result is a pointless draw, leaving both players dead in the street like so much human rubbish.
In hindsight, the Northern Ireland war seems incredible, unbelievable, impossible: if it wasn’t for the dead and the disappeared and the ongoing repercussions for those left behind, we might even be able to dismiss it as a terrible nightmare we once had. Neither side emerges with any credit: the British overlords are shown as arrogant and spiteful, men who believe the Irish are savages who need to be beaten into submission – the enlisted men are brutish and thick – and happy to wield the whip.
The IRA treat each other like shit, motivating their soldiers with the threat of further violence. The men portrayed here are not comrades, or proud, principled revolutionaries, these are desperate, violent men who will do anything to further their cause, so much so that they terrify the people they are fighting for to the extent that they would rather commit suicide than cross them. It’s an appalling, depressing mess.
The production was (understandably) filmed not in Belfast but in a condemned part of Leeds and, yes, the accents are all over the place, but it has an enormous power in that it conveys an almost surreal situation (as seen from the relative safety of mainland Britain*) in sharp, horrible relief. At the centre of it, Harry Brown drifts around the streets, always under scrutiny, waiting to kill or to be killed, delaying the inevitable by an ill-fated liaison with a local widow. It’s a tragic, haunting programme, and one that makes you feel vaguely ashamed.
*England wasn’t unscathed, of course. I can remember armed troops on the streets and hearing the dull boom of the car bomb that blew a soldier’s legs off a mile away, but then I lived in a garrison town, so the IRA brought the war to us. I can’t imagine how terrible life in Belfast must have been.